Will Nuclear Modernisation Nuke the Budget? The Narrow Basis of the Nuclear Modernisation Debate.

The Reagan administration turned the world’s leading creditor nation, the United States, into the world’s leading debtor nation with great haste and a key structural feature that underpinned this shift was the combination of supply side tax cuts for the rich, naturally, and a massive strategic build up that included the modernisation of nuclear forces.

So it’s with a sense of déjà vu that we see Trump and Congressional Republicans dishing up tax cuts for the rich, which as Paul Krugman points out repeats George W Bush’s cynical PR methodology that seeks to hide its true beneficiaries, the cutting of public support for health care toward the poor, and all that in the midst of Congressional Budget Office reports on the very large, and possibly unsustainable, cost projections of nuclear force modernisation.

Morning in America, again.

I’d like to make some remarks about the modernisation of nuclear forces. Really, I seek to make one point. The CBO report estimates that the modernisation of US nuclear forces will cost something along the order of $1.2 trillion over 30 years. As the CBO report points out, at a time when the US budget faces structural constraints, the permanent revolution of the GOP which goes in reverse to the Trotskyite version is surely a factor here, and when the budget is committed to conventional defence modernisation and development that means projected nuclear modernisation plans will compete for funding with other defence programmes.

To be fair, the modernisation plans that the CBO analysed and that are currently on the table are really Obama’s programmes. The Trump administration is currently conducting a nuclear posture review so therefore the full nature of the Trump administration’s plans for nuclear modernisation are not known, however the administration has indicated that it will continue with Obama era modernisation programmes.

The historical analogy still holds, it must be said, because Reagan era nuclear modernisation flowed on from Carter administration plans and doctrines.

The CBO in its analysis of current, Obama era, plans divides existing nuclear modernisation programmes into four categories

1. Strategic nuclear forces (delivery platforms and warheads). $772 billion estimated cost.

2. Tactical nuclear forces (short range delivery aircraft and bombs). $25 billion estimated cost.

3. Nuclear production complex. $261 billion estimated cost.

4. Command, control, communications, and early warning. $184 billion estimated cost.

Strategic nuclear force modernisation under current plans includes;

Replacing the Ohio class boomer with a new Columbia class, the refurbishment of the Trident II D5 SLBM and then the replacement of the D5 with a new missile.

Replacing the Minuteman III ICBM with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

Development of another bomber the B21 to deliver the Long Range Standoff Weapon, which replaces the Air Launched Cruise Missile

LEPs for the W87 and W88 warheads for SLBMs, LEP for the W80 warhead designated for the LRSO and finally LEPs not based on new fissile pits for the IW1, IW2 and IW3 or Interoperable warheads which are projected for all ICBM and SLMBs and which will be compatible with both delivery vehicles.

The main line items of tactical nuclear force modernisation revolve around LEP programmes for the B61 gravity bomb the different versions of which would be consolidated into the single B61-12 weapon, and when the B61-12 reaches the end of its service life an LEP designated as Next B61.

The CBO examines with great care and detail different possible force structure postures and the cost savings that they offer which forego some of the above shopping list items. The report, therefore, is both important and timely because it undercuts the position, for instance made by Obama’s Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, promoted by modernisation hawks that unless all items in the executive’s preferred shopping list are purchased the US nuclear deterrent will atrophy.

Regarding warhead modernisation the National Nuclear Security Administration has just published its fiscal year 2018 Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan good analysis of which has been made by Hans Kristensen. The point I want to make is related a remark Kristensen makes in his separate analysis of the CBO report on the costs of nuclear modernisation, which is

One “all or nothing” argument is that the United States needs to modernize, otherwise the nuclear deterrent will atrophy. But that’s not the choice. No one is arguing that the United States should not modernize its nuclear forces. The question is how much it can afford to modernize and for what purpose

I find myself not in agreement with aspects of the last point. There are plenty within the nuclear activist community that do argue that the US should not modernise its nuclear forces. The position that no such argument exists becomes tenable upon the uncritical acceptance of US nuclear strategy, which has little to do with the deterrence of a nuclear first strike upon the United States. So, the argument becomes; should the US modernise its nuclear forces in a more cost effective way and in a way that doesn’t expand its current mission range?

That’s a narrow question, and we might want to ask more fundamental questions about nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy.

From Hiroshima into the 1960s US nuclear forces and nuclear war planning were reflective of strategic air power theory, not deterrence theory or nuclear strategy as commonly supposed. Deterrence theory, which is about the control of escalation and intra war deterrence, was an intellectual construction largely developed in the mid-1960s to 1970s, and I’d argue that deterrence theory’s fullest confirmation came with Reagan’s NSDD-13 and the war plan based upon it SIOP-5F. The question of whether nuclear force posture and planning reflected deterrence theory or whether deterrence theory was an ideological justification I leave aside here (I think the latter).

I should stress that deterrence theory is often, wrongly, associated with realist theory in International Relations. Deterrence theory is based on the view that deterrence is delicate so posture, escalation control and theory matter whereas in realism deterrence follows from the mere existence of nuclear weapons in which case posture and theory are irrelevant. It’s easy to see how a realist wouldn’t be too enamoured with arguments for nuclear modernisation.

At any rate, I make the point that current and officially projected nuclear force postures are either reflective of deterrence theory or are justified with respect to it. Either way, I would argue that we shouldn’t just accept deterrence theory as gospel on matters nuclear. We should challenge it, and those who do challenge it, and they aren’t just hippies, do indeed argue against the modernisation of nuclear forces and they make this argument not just in the United States. Uncritical acceptance of the need for nuclear modernisation helps to forestall a wider debate on nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy.

My own view, for what it is worth, is more based on ideas regarding nuclear disarmament but not as commonly perceived however. Another day, perhaps.